This blog is written by Celia Deane-Drummond, who is a member of the CAFOD Theological Reference Group, and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She has been writing and publishing on eco-theology for the last twenty years.
“Our home looks like an immense pile of filth”
Laudato Si’ is not for the faint hearted. Pope Francis, like Liberation Theologians, is prepared to go into the mud, as it were, of our own making and dwell there for a while.
The encyclical reads like a Psalmist cry of lament peppered with examples of our own degraded earth; “Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more like an immense pile of filth” #21. This implies that creatures once capable of offering a cry of praise are now silenced.
That this degradation is of our own doing is there for all to see, but for Francis it reflects a wider cultural carelessness and indifference about building relationships with each other and with the earth; a neglect of the most vulnerable in society. He points to the violence meted out on the earth and each other in the name of false ideals of progress, understood in terms of relentless growth and consumer capitalism.
Climate change impacts vulnerable communities
And for those who wondered how far Pope Francis would take on board the climate debate, it is clear that, chemist by training, he would have no ambiguity in his mind about the validity of human sources of climate change. He is suitably nuanced in his claim, so “a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases…released mainly as a result of human activity” #23.
A model of development based on the use of fossil fuels simply will not work, and he is adamant that use of coal needs to stop. He recognises, too, that the brunt of climate change impacts are felt by those who are most vulnerable in society, leading to forced migrations and loss of livelihood.
But Pope Francis goes further than many encyclicals in his evaluation that the environmental crisis is not just a problem for a few, but at the heart of a degradation of democracy. He argues, “our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to a loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded” #25.
The call for a new earth
Alongside this larger evaluation he offers some concrete, practical examples of alternative ways of living. He presses for alternative uses of energy, pointing also to the particular problems associated with the lack of clean water available to those who are living in poverty. That access to water is a basic human right.
Woven in between his discussion of material poverty, we find a sensitive treatment of ecology and conservation, pointing to the intrinsic value for all creatures in our common home, an ecological spirituality. And so he calls for more effort to be put into ecological research.
It is not surprising, then, that an integral ecology flows from this narrative, one that includes ecology as such, human ecology that stresses our interconnectedness and a new kind of ecological economics. Inequity prevails, but Pope Francis does not just leave us there: he calls for a new earth founded on deep theological principles.
And it is these theological elements that are the most likely to be missed off in the popular discussion, captivated by his strident remarks against the status quo.
But Francis is not just a prophet, he is also a priest, so he seeks to build the kind of spiritual well-being that will enable people to make the choices that need to be made, but we feel powerless to enact.
Love, faith and hope
We find deep love of God for creation; faith that God is still Lord of the earth; and hope that another world is possible.
Here, we find reference to love as that which makes us most fully human, grounded in deep love of God for creation; faith as that which believes that in spite of structural and individual sin, God is still Lord of the earth; and hope that another world is possible.
Social science, and indeed scientific studies of climate change can give insights about what is happening in the world. But Francis goes further and insists on the importance of the transcendent. He does that by building on prior Catholic social thought, including ideas like ecological conversion that tops and tails this encyclical.
By the end this conversion becomes more explicitly Christological. And such a move is also characteristic of his namesake, Francis of Assisi. His ministry combined radical care for those in poverty, all creatures expressed in simplicity of lifestyle, rooted in Christ at the heart of faith. And such a cosmic Christology does not miss out the traditional model of Mary either, who is not just mother of us all, but mother of the earth.